The ASUS Transformer Prime was the first quad-core Android tablet on the market and we’ve had quite a bit of time to play around with it. We’ll be taking a look at hardware, software and even the laptop dock that turns this Tegra 3 powerhouse into one of the most interesting netbooks you’ll ever see. Is the Transformer Prime a good stepping stone into the world of quad-core tablets or should we look ahead for more to come? Read on to find out.
The ASUS Transformer Prime is a considerable step up from its predecessor in so many different ways. One of the most obvious ways out of the box is its build. Whereas the former was a bit blocky and thick, ASUS chose to put an emphasis on thinness and weight. The device is only 8.3mm thin, comparable to some smartphones, and weights just 586 grams. It’s a very comfortable experience whether you’re holding it in landscape or portrait.
Build quality feels very premium, something you want out of a tablet that you spend upwards of $400 on. A brushed metal back plate covers the internals which include the super fast quad-core Tegra 3 processor by NVIDIA, 1GB of RAM and storage options of 32GB and 64GB with options for expandable memory. If you were wondering how fast quad-core really is, I’ll just say that I’ve never had a smoother Android experience on both phones and tablets.
I never got the occasional stutter and jitters that I got on the original Transformer and the monstrous CPU/GPU combo unsurprisingly handled every 3D game I threw at it. I was one of the biggest skeptics regarding quad-core – I simply thought it was too much. I’m happy to see that I was absolutely wrong and anyone looking to grab this device should be happy knowing they have such powerful hardware inside.
As far as its effects on battery life, experts were right: you get a faster, more powerful chipset and its four cores work less to do more. While battery life does meet the 10 hour norm that we’ve come to expect from 10-inch class tablets, it’s more than enough to ask for considering the hardware inside. NVIDIA’s low-power companion core on the Tegra 3 chipset helps it all along, handling background services and tasks without using much battery life at all.
ASUS uses a 10.1 inch IPS display that is absolutely beautiful. Through software you can switch between IPS and IPS+, with the latter being a more bright and vivid mode which helps you easily see the display in sunlight. Beyond that, it’s responsive to touch which is necessary for smooth OS use and gameplay. Video and images are a joy to look at and ghosting isn’t an issue at all. I’m not a videophile but I think every tablet would benefit from a display of this quality. That’s not to say this device’s display can’t be matched, but you won’t find much better on the market right now.
As this was a big issue when the device first came out, I wanted to touch on supposed GPS issue. Before going on, I should note that I have since gotten all available updates for the Transformer Prime, including Android 4.0 and the two maintenance upgrades following it. I have had absolutely no issues with GPS. Not only can I get a lock outside in less than two seconds, I can also get that same lock inside the house within the same amount of time.
It’s accurate to about 10-30 meters depending on conditions and the radios never lag or miscalculate where exactly I am. There seems to be a mixed bag of people who either have this issue or don’t, and I’m one of the ones who don’t.
It’s a shame that there is an issue at all but if GPS on a tablet is important to you then it’s worth taking a chance on the Prime. Who knows, you might get as lucky as I did. It would probably be a good idea to check it out in stores before you buy it, but make sure the unit has received all necessary updates.
As for other hardware features, you’re getting a microSD card slot, a micro HDMI port and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the chassis for all your multimedia needs. As some OEMs tend to neglect these features, we appreciate ASUS even more for being able to fit all of this stuff in there, and doing so without compromising the tablet’s compactness.
From its build quality to the display, from GPS to GPU, I can’t find much wrong at all with the Transformer Prime’s hardware. WiFi and GPS performance has been excellent for me, though I understand hesitance to buy the product when considering all the reports that came out regarding issues with them. It feels neither cheap nor flimsy, and that’s something you should expect from a premium Android tablet. Even with its cutting edge features it’s still a great value and that’s what makes it so attractive. The software makes it all even better.
ASUS were one of the first, if not the first, tablet manufacturers to upgrade their users to Android 4.0 and that’s what we’re working with today. Android 4.0 brings a number of improvements over 3.2 Honeycomb, including a refined user interface, a few new features and some nice performance enhancements. While the transformation from Android 2.3 to 4.0 for phones was greater than the transformation of 3.2 to 4.0 for tablets, we still appreciate its presence.
A lot of the Android 4.0-specific applications remain largely the same and the same is true with much of the operating system. The settings menu is different to reflect new options such as the couple of new security features and the developer options menu which gives developers the tools they need to test applications on the tablet.
We’ve also gotten a new applications tray (widgets and applications can be found in the same pane) as well as the new applications switcher which allows you to swipe a particular app out of the list. There’s also the new unlock screen which allows you to change owner information as well as unlock to either the homescreen or the camera.
Android 4.0 introduced hardware acceleration by default but this tablet didn’t need it, even on Android 3.2. Thanks to the quad-core Tegra 3 processor inside, this is the absolute smoothest Android experience I’ve ever had on a tablet. We already touched on that in the hardware section but it deserved another mention here. You won’t be pulling your hair out waiting for applications to load or waiting for Android to register your screen touches thanks to all this power.
ASUS’ customization of Android hasn’t changed much but it never was too obtrusive or obnoxious. Aside from a redesigned navigation bar, a redesigned notification panel (which you can easily switch back to default in settings), a dot-based homescreen indicator and a plethora of pre-installed applications and widgets, Android 4.0 is pretty much pure. The applications ASUS does include are extremely helpful, though.
Things such as App Backup and App Locker (the latter being a security feature which allows you to protect application access with a password) would get near-daily use out of me. MyCloud and MyNet help me take my multimedia on the go and share my multimedia from the tablet to other devices, such as my PS3 or Xbox 360. these DLNA features are great and work seamlessly. I didn’t even have to set anything up out of the box and I was playing my music and movies back within seconds.
WebStorage, Zinio, Press Reader, MyLibrary, SuperNote, TegraZone, Polaris Office and all of your usual Google apps are also present. Some of these applications can be disabled as of Android 4.0, but not all can be. It shouldn’t be much of a problem to wade through your applications with or without the ability to disable the ones you don’t use but ASUS kept things very minimal, all things considered.
Their MyZine widget is still one of the best I’ve seen for organizing both your professional and personal life, all in one pane. You get weather, bookmarks, music, photos, emails, events and more fed right to your homescreen. Unfortunately you still can’t replace email with Gmail so those who really want to use the MyZine app with Gmail will need to set their Gmail account up inside the email app.
ASUS has been very good with support as evidenced by their quick turnaround of Android 4.0 and frequent updates to address issues. Don’t worry about support because they have become the best of the best in that particular area, something that is and should be important to many users. At this point, you can’t expect many OEMs to bring users a 100% stock Android experience and ASUS gets as close, if not closer, to that than any OEM.
Games and Multimedia
As you would expect, the Tegra 3 chipset inside handles most games handily. From 3D THD heavy hitters such as Shadowgun to those not designed specifically for Tegra 3, 3D gaming was excellent. Smooth framerates and high quality textures are just a couple of the many benefits of having a chipset of this magnitude inside. Unfortunately, not all of the excellent 3D games on the Android market are available for the Prime.
One of my favorite games, Modern Combat 3, was incompatible. We’re not sure if this is due to Gameloft not yet testing the game on this chipset or if it’s just due to incompatibility with Android 4.0 but we were disappointed regardless. With all of this power it’s a shame to be missing out on some games that can take great advantage of Tegra 3 but there is still a great selection of games available for the platform.
As you’d expect, video was no issue here. Whether it was on YouTube or streaming video from my media server, be it in the worst of qualities or in high definition, the Transformer Prime hardly whimpered. The device handled most of the file types I threw at it with the exception of .MKV videos, though I can’t blame them as MKV is a weird container that most media players have trouble with.
The speakers on the ASUS Transformer Prime may seem understated at first, but they deliver exceptional sound. I never expect much from the small set of speakers embedded inside these slim devices but the Transformer Prime produces above average sound.
I can’t say I was too pleased with the bass performance on this thing but, again, I didn’t expect it. You’ll want to find some external devices to feed your audio through if you want the best quality you can get. Otherwise, audio is crisp and loud enough to be heard through a moderate amount of noise.
For cameras, we have an 8 megapixel shooter on the back capable of shooting 1080p HD video. It’s accompanied by a very bright LED flash, too. Also on the device is a front-facing 1.2 megapixel camera. The megapixel count on these sensors aren’t just for marketing, either.
The rear camera is as good as it’s going to get on a tablet these days. While other manufacturers cut corners in this area of their devices because they don’t expect you to take pictures and video with such a big slate, ASUS instead chose to give users the best they could and let them make their own decisions.
Low-light performance is exceptionally well and the LED light helps take decent pictures even in pitch-black darkness. Of course, day-light performance is even better and you’ll be happy that ASUS stuck a quality sensor on here for those days where you just don’t have your phone for some odd reason. Video recording is smooth and very high quality. Even at 480p and 720p, you’re able to produce a crisp moving picture with little ghosting or stutter.
The front camera is just as good for what it is. Most will use this for video calling and self-portraits and it’s a sure shot that your buddies on the other end will have no problem figuring out who you are.
Unfortunately, the camera experience is gimped by the software itself. As good as the sensors are, the default camera app is as bare-bones as it can get. This is not ASUS’ fault – point the fingers all at Google. Ever since Android 1.0, Google’s camera software left a lot to be desired. It’s sad that we’re nearing on four years since Android’s first public release and they still have not figured it out.
A lack of options for fine-tuning shots and adding special effects is sickening, and while that may sound a bit harsh it’s necessary to call Google out on this. OEMs have had no problem creating great camera software. Motorola, even as bad as their cameras have been in the past, still produced very good software. Samsung and Sony, of course, lead the way in this category.
If Google has to go as far as having an OEM help them create camera software, then they need to do that. It’s disgusting how basic it is and I’m barely ever interested in using it for this very reason. It’s a shame that such a great camera sensor can’t get the extensive software it deserves. I keep my fingers crossed for an ASUS-developed solution in the future but it’s not likely that this will happen. But as for those camera samples, take a look above and below.
After having used the keyboard dock extensively, I can safely say that you won’t want to buy the tablet without it. Even if you already have a netbook you should consider transforming your Transformer into a netbook because it’s just as good as any with the tablet attached. The tablet securely locks into place and won’t come ajar unless you want it to by using a switch on the top of the dock.
The keyboard itself is very good. It’s a chicklet-style keyboard with great spacing and great track and feel. A full QWERTY layout with a dedicated number row was enough for me, but the extra row of buttons ASUS added for OS navigation, settings and more is a real treat. It’s not often that I have to touch my tablet in order to do anything but play games (and you’ll definitely want to detach it in that case).
The track pad on the device is the standard setup you’d find on any netbook or laptop. You have a sizable area for moving your mouse cursor as well as click sections at the bottom. The track pad also supports multi-touch gestures, something I was surprised about. You could scroll left, right, up and down using nothing but the track pad if you wanted. Perhaps the most interesting thing is how ASUS allows you to customize how the buttons on the track pad work. For instance, I can set the right click up as a back button, while the middle button can act as the menu key.
The dock goes a step further with an option for connecting a full-sized USB cable as well as an SD card for added storage. Perhaps the nicest thing about the dock is that it houses an extra battery which affords users 10 extra hours of battery life, making for 20 hours of battery life altogether. If that’s not enough, the dock will charge your tablet while it’s inserted, even if you don’t have a charging cable attached.
On average, the keyboard dock only costs about a third or fourth of the actual tablet depending on configuration, and I don’t see a reason not to get it. It’s a great accessory that I wish would come standard with every tablet and ASUS didn’t disappoint. You have the most capable Android tablet on the market as well as one of the most capable netbooks with a simple click.
The ASUS Transformer Prime is the best tablet on the market. Period. Quad-core processor? Check. Outstanding camera? Check. Beautiful display? Check. Android 4.0? Check. Ability to turn it into a netbook? Check. All of these things come together to create the best tablet experience I have ever had with any Android tablet. While I wish the camera software wasn’t so limiting, you’ll still want to use the camera for its quality alone. Gaming on the Transformer Prime is like on no other device, and the same rings true for the entire multimedia experience.
Above all of that, I haven’t run into many bugs, including the dreaded GPS issue that forced ASUS to remove that spec from their marketing listings. Even with that issue which you may or may not care about, you’ll still want to buy the ASUS Transformer Prime. Unless you can wait for the wave of quad-core devices sure to be headed to stores later this year, do not go into a store looking for a tablet without keeping the ASUS Transformer Prime on the front of your list. Period.